|Name:||Ernest Clancy Kerr, Jr.|
|Rank/Branch:||Lance Corporal/US Marine Corps|
|Unit:||Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 363, Marine Air Group 36, 1st Marine Air Wing|
|Date of Birth:||21 July 1946 (Akron, OH)|
|Home of Record:||Akron, OH|
|Date of Loss:||26 March 1968|
|Country of Loss:||South Vietnam/Over Water|
|Loss Coordinates:||161408N 1080740E (AU930130)
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered|
|Other Personnel in Incident:||Richard Evancho; Glenn W. Mowrey; Frankie E. Allgood; Larry E. Green; (missing), William H. Cook and Wayne J. Fielding (remains recovered), Brook Stevenson and Byron Ruck (rescued)|
SYNOPSIS:One of the earliest helicopters employed in Southeast Asia, and the primary Marine Corps helicopter used during the early years of the war, was the Sikorsky UH34D Seahorse. This aircraft was already quite old when they arrived in the battle zone. However, both the US and South Vietnamese military found them to be extremely effective throughout the war.
At approximately 0100 hours on 26 March 1968, the NVA launched a brief, but intense rocket attack against the major military facilities at Phu Bai walking their rockets across the base from west to east. One of the last rockets fired landed in the officer’s living quarters area. According to one of the survivors, Lt. Col. Frankie E. Allgood, the Squadron Commander of HMM-363, was sitting on the side of his bunk putting on his boots when the rocket hit in the corner of his tent. Shrapnel struck him in the back of the head and abdomen critically wounding him.
Among those also injured in this attack with head wounds were Cpl. Richard Evancho, Marine Air Base Squadron 36, Marine Air Group 36, 1st Marine Air Wing; Cpl. Glenn W. Mowrey, Headquarters and Supply Company, FLSG-A, Force Logistic Command; Lt. Col. W. White and Capt. G. Greene, units of assignment unknown.
Within an hour of the attack, two UH34D helicopters were assigned the emergency medevac mission. 2nd Lt. Brook Stevenson, aircraft commander; 1st Lt. Byron Ruck, co-pilot; Cpl. Larry E. Green, crewchief; and Cpl. Ernest C. “Ernie” Kerr, Jr, door gunner; comprised the crew of the #2 aircraft (serial # - 144654), call sign “Murray Night Medevac Chase,” in a flight of 2.
Major James L. Harrison, aircraft commander and flight leader; 2nd Lt. Dan W. Kessler, co-pilot; Cpl. R. M. Gott, crewchief; Cpl. J. V. Olivarri, door gunner; and HM3 C. J. Kubarly, corpsman; comprised the crew of Murray Night Medevac.
The weather was described as typical monsoon conditions with cloud layers forming a solid overcast with bases at 600 feet, moderate to heavy rain and a stiff breeze that frequently turned into a strong wind. In preparation for the flight, Larry Green and George Curtis, another crewchief, installed all of the windows in the Seahorse’s cabin in order to protect those inside from the weather.
James Harrison briefed both aircrews about their mission before they proceeded to the west side of the field and landed under the control tower close to Alpha Med, a hospital facility similar to a MASH unit. The patients were loaded onto both aircraft with Lt. Col. Allgood’s stretcher being placed on the floor of the cabin of 2nd Lt. Stevenson’s. Richard Evancho and Glenn Mowery were also loaded as walk-on’s aboard the same helicopter and sat incanvas bench seats located along the bulkhead while Lt. Col. White and Capt. Greene were loaded onto Maj. Harrison’s aircraft. The two Navy corpsman attending the wounded on Murray Night Medevac Chase were HM3 William H. Cook and HN Wayne J. Fielding who were assigned to the 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd Marine Division.
2nd Lt. Stevenson thought he recognized Lt. Col. Allgood and asked Cpl. Green if it was in fact the squadron commander who was being carried to his aircraft. The severely wounded man’s skin coloring was ashen gray; he had a large bandage covering nearly all of the back of his head and had multiple IV lines attached to him. The crewchief acknowledged that it was and that his condition was extremely grave. One of the corpsman told Brook Stevenson through Larry Green that Frankie Allgood was “lucky to be alive because a good portion of the back of his head was gone.” Further, because of the type and severity of the injury, the corpsman added, “… and if he lives, he will be a vegetable.”
At the same time the wounded were being loaded, 2nd Lt. Stevenson witnessed something quite unusual. According to a statement he made later, “… and this is where things get a bit strange, I distinctly remember a Navy Lt. Cmdr. in dress Khakis with cover (hat) and carrying a manila envelope (or file) that was between ½ to 1 inch thick get on one of the birds. I was almost positive he got on our bird; could be wrong, but whichever one, he did not get off. Because this was supposed to be an emergency medevac mission, I was a bit puzzled we were taking passengers and walk-ons.”
At 0450 hours, the doors were slid closed and latched in preparation for departure under marginal weather conditions for the half an hour or so flight. Maj. Harrison obtained clearance from the tower before lifting off first with his aircraft’s lights on steady and chase departing closely behind with his lights off due to the threat of enemy ground fire. After crossing the coastline, Hue’s Departure Control directed Maj. Harrison and 2nd Lt. Stevenson to turn their external aircraft lights on steady bright. Further, Departure Control advised the flight leader that they would guide the flight on a radar controlled flight plan to NAS DaNang on a route that would take the helicopters at an altitude of 4000 feet on a heading of 090 degrees to Point Alpha, a position in the Gulf of Tonkin 30 miles due east of Phu Bai Airfield, and then for them to make a right turn to a heading of 190 degrees and fly straight through DaNang Bay to NAS DaNang’s G-4 Hospital, which was located approximately a mile southeast of the main airbase and just west of the Marble Mountain Air Facility.
As Murray Night Medevac flight started to climb for altitude with an air speed of 90 knots, it got no further than about 600 feet before bouncing off the bottom of the clouds. Shortly after takeoff, Maj. Harrison turned down the IFR/Radar controlled guidance and said he was going to go VFR (Visual Fight Rules). In an attempt to keep the lead aircraft in sight in total darkness as Maj. Harrison continued on a heading of 090 degrees, 2nd Lt. Stevenson tried to remain about 50 feet below Lead, but because of being heavier due to carrying additional passengers, was only able to catch up to within 50 to 100 yards to Lead’s 7 o’clock position. Further, as they continued to the east, the cloud ceiling varied between 450 and 700 feet causing both helicopters to fly in and out of the clouds. These conditions contributed to complicating an already difficult situation.
Additionally, the pilots knew that on this standard out-to-sea flight path from Phu Bai to DaNang and at this altitude it was possible to fly into a couple of small knobby hills right at the shoreline that rose several hundred feet above the ground nearly 1 kilometer south of the 090 degree bearing and 1 to 2 kilometers north of Hai Van Pass located to the north of NAS DaNang.
Roughly 14 minutes into the flight, Lead entered another set of clouds, but when his wingman came out on the other side, Lead was no where in sight. 2nd Lt. Stevenson and 1st Lt. Ruck both tried to visually locate Murray Night Medevac without success. Brook Stevenson asked Cpl Green if he could see the running lights of the Lead aircraft. Larry Green replied that they were pretty busy down in the cabin, but did take the time to look and reported he could not see the flight leader. Fearing the possibility of a collision, 2nd Lt. Stevenson slowed his air speed to 65 to 70 knots and started pulling in power to climb.
Meanwhile at the same time 2nd Lt. Stevenson’s crew lost sight of Murray Night Medevac, Maj. Harrison believed they were approximately 25 miles east of Phu Bai and 5 miles short ofPoint Alpha when he lost contact with Departure Control. Without notifying his wingman regarding his intentions, James Harrison commenced a gradual climb to 700 feet in an attemptto regain either radio contact with Departure Control or a TACAN signal that would guide the flight to DaNang airport.
While still at an altitude of 700 feet, Maj. Harrison heard his wingman transmit that he had lost sight of Lead. James Harrison radioed that he was commencing a descent back down to 500 feet and maintaining 090 degree heading at 90 knots. Once Lead descended to 500 feet, Lt. Kessler, who had been visually searching for #2, reported to Maj. Harrison that he could see their wingman at Lead’s 7 o’clock position at 500 feet altitude. It was also atthis time that 2nd Lt Stevenson asked Lead what was his air speed to which Maj. Harrison replied 90 knots and Dan Kessler informed James Harrison that he could no longer see Murray Night Medevac Chase.
Simultaneously while visually searching for Lead, Brook Stevenson and Byron Ruck conducted an altitude check between them by reporting over the intercom the altimeter reading from each pilot’s gauges. Both altimeters indicated the helicopter was between 450 and 500 feet. At the same instant 2nd Lt. Stevenson pulled up on the collective to pull pitch and climb for altitude, the helicopter impacted the water at a speed of 70 knots. During the time immediately prior to the crash, there was no indication the aircraft was loosing altitude through monitoring the cockpit gauges, the radar altitude alarm that failed to go off at the preset height of 50 feet above the ground or the aircrew experiencing the sensation of air pressure change.
No more then 2 minutes had elapsed between the time Brook Stevenson lost sight of Lead for the last time and when Murray Night Medevac Chase impacted the water.
In the pitch blackness broken only by the glow of the instrument panel in front of them, both men thought they had flown into those knobby hills north of Hai Van Pass because they hit with such force it ripped 1st Lt. Ruck’s helmet off his head and caused 2nd Lt. Stevenson to sustain a severe whiplash injury to his neck. That force of impact would also have violently thrown the rest of the crew and passengers around in the cabin below rendering them severely dazed if not unconscious.
The aircraft commander reported he heard no sound other than the tremendous crunch of the aircraft at the time of impact followed by an eerie silence. The co-pilot added that when he looked up through the windshield, he saw water rising as the helicopter began to sink. Brook Stevenson was immediately aware that he could not feel his feet and legs below the knees. When he reached down to touch them, his hand became instantly icy cold and he realized they had crashed into the water, not land. At the time of loss, their position was approximately 5 miles northeast of Mui Chon Dong and the coastline, 22 miles north of DaNang and 26 miles east of Phu Bai Airfield.
As the Seahorse began to settle deeper in the water, Byron Ruck instinctively reached up and slid his window open allowing water to rapidly pour in through it. Immediately he struggled against the surging water entering the cockpit as he escaped through the window. Shortly thereafter when the water pressure equalized inside the cabin, 2nd Lt Stevenson successfully opened his window, took another deep breath of air from the diminished air pocket and exited through it on his own way to the surface from an estimated the depth of 30 to 50 feet.
When he broke the surface, Brook Stevenson heard his co-pilot calling out. Luckily they were only 10 to 15 yards apart and able to find each other in the absolute darkness through calling back and forth to one another. They provided mutual support to each other while continuing to call out for the rest of their crew and medevacs. Both men held on to the other’s back straps of their May West survival vests as they struggled to shed unnecessary gear in the rough and choppy water. By now the weather conditions consisted of 4 to 6 foot waves that were driven by a good 15 to 20 knot wind blowing directly from the north. At no time while they remained in the water did the survivors see any trace of anyone else.
As Chase impacted the water, Maj. Harrison saw the lights of DaNang in the distance at his 3 o’clock position and commenced a gradual 90 degree right turn toward them. Unfortunately he was unaware that his wingman was no longer flying in trail. It was not until after landing at the G-4 Hospital that it became clear that Murray Night Medevac Chase was missing. A Search and Recovery (SAR) operation was immediately initiated utilizing aircraft from the US Air Force’s 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.
Meanwhile, after being in the water for roughly half an hour, the survivors saw the search aircraft operating roughly 5 miles southeast of their position. They watched as a C-130 Hercules, call sign “Spooky 14,” dropped flares while a CH34 Seahorse searched for them. Twice during the next hour a search aircraft came within a mile to mile and a half of the two men, but did not see the survivors’ signaling attempts with their “Pencil Flare.” All the while Brook Stevenson and Byron Ruck continued to swim toward Hai Van Pass because it was the only silhouetted identifiable landmark illuminated by the SAR flares and they believed it was also the closest point of land. Further, swimming helped them stay warm as well as helped them to ride the waves better then when they remained still.
As part of regular air operations, each morning at first light search and rescue aircraft including HH3E “Jolly Green” helicopters departed DaNang Airbase to orbit over the Gulf of Tonkin east of Quang Tri Province in case their services were needed. The crew of the Jolly Green assigned to this mission had been briefed on the loss of Murray Night Medevac Chase. After liftoff, it flew out to sea parallel to the beach toward the north and its designated area of operation. As it did so, its crew kept a watchful eye out for the missing men and aircraft.
Meanwhile, after an hour and a half of watching the search aircraft operating well away from their position, the survivors spotted the Jolly Green helicopter on its way north. Thankfully the wind and water conditions calmed considerably over the last hour or so making it much easier to see and be seen. The two men waited until they were at the aircrew’s 2 o’clock position so the Jolly Green’s crew would have the best chance of seeing them. When the helicopter was approximately ¼ to ½ mile away and at the correct angle, Byron Ruck pulled the pin on their last smoke grenade sending a plume of yellow smoke into the air. Immediately the Jolly Green changed course and flew directly toward them.
At 0635 hours, the rescue helicopter hovered over the two survivors, dropped a winch with sling to the water and brought each man up one at a time. Once onboard, 2nd Lt. Stevenson and 1st Lt Ruck provided the SAR crew with the necessary information needed to conduct a visual search for the rest of the Seahorse’s crew and passengers. However, there was absolutely no trace of an oil slick or debris field to be seen. Likewise, there was no sign of the missing men.
The US Navy believed the seven men were trapped inside the helicopter when it sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin. At the time the formal search operation was terminated some 4 hours after it was initiated, Frankie Allgood, Glenn Mowrey, Larry Green, Richard Evancho, Ernest Kerr, William Cook and Wayne Fielding were declared Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.
One 22 April 1968, the nearly complete remains of Wayne Fielding were found and transported to the DaNang Mortuary for examination and identification. There is no record of where HN Fielding’s remains were found; however, he was missing only his fingers and mandible – the lower jaw. They were subsequently identified on 27 April through a dental match with his medical records. After embalming, Wayne Fielding was returned to his family on 29 April for burial with full military honors.
On 12 July 1968, the nearly complete remains of William Cook were found floating in the South China Sea approximately 1 mile off shore and 3 miles north of DaNang.After recovery, the body; which was missing only the hands, feet and mandible, was transported to the DaNang Mortuary where it was positively identified as HM3 Cook on 26 July through dental comparison. After embalming, William Cook was returned to his family on 5 August for burial with full military honors.
Under the circumstances, it is highly unlikely the remains of the men killed in this tragic loss at sea can ever be found without a massive underwater salvage/recovery operation being undertaken. However, each man has a right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country if at all humanly possible. Above all else, each man has the right not to be forgotten by the nation for which he gave his life.
As to the question surrounding the possibility of an additional passenger on Murray Night Medevac Chase, the Navy Lt. Commander, there are no definitive answers one way or the other. Ultimately answers may only come if and when the Seahorse’s hulk is raised from its watery grave.
For other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fate could be quite different. Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government.Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
American servicemen in Vietnam were called upon to fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.